Fluoride Action Network

Owners of former Reynolds plant shift focus to below-ground contamination

Source: The Daily News (Longview, WA) | November 23rd, 2008 | By Amy M.E. Fischer
Industry type: Aluminum Industry

A cleanup of the contaminated Longview industrial site where Reynolds Metals Co. made aluminum for 60 years will take roughly three more years and cost a total of about $65 million, the owners of the property say.

Dozens of workers have been dismantling the defunct smelter and cleaning up buildings and old aluminum potlines over the last four years, Barry Oliver, owner of Chinook Ventures, Inc., said last week. The above-ground portion of the cleanup will be finished by the end of December, he said.

Despite the high cost of cleanup, Oliver said Chinook Ventures knew what it was getting into when it bought Reynolds’ former Longview assets in bankruptcy court in 2004.

“It’s been pretty much as everybody said it would be,” he said.

Chinook Ventures’ next step will be to eliminate the below-ground contamination, which involves removing contaminated soil, “black mud” ponds, an industrial landfill and a floorsweeps landfill, said Oliver, a businessman from British Columbia with experience cleaning up nine contaminated industrial sites. Chinook Ventures has voluntarily opted to do the below-ground cleanup so the company can maximize the vacant land’s potential for future industrial use, he said.

The company bought the buildings and assets of the defunct Reynolds plant in 2004, proposing to develop the riverfront site into a private port and processing facility. The assets Chinook purchased include two aluminum producing plants known as the North Plant and South Plant, a carbon plant ad carbon transfer area, a cable mill, a demolished cryolite plant, waste water treatment plant and casting facility. Northwest Alloys — Alcoa, the world’s largest aluminum producer, still owns the land on which the structures sit.

According to the state Department of Ecology, several places on the 416-acre site are contaminated with hazardous material, and ground water beneath portions of the site has elevated levels of sulfate, fluoride and cyanide that exceed state pollution standards. DOE is directing the site cleanup, which must be done to industrial-level standards rather than commercial or residential standards, which are higher.

Reynolds built the aluminum smelter in 1941. In 2001, Alcoa Inc. took over the smelter and sold it to Longview Aluminum LLC. Controlled by Chicago investor Michael Lynch, Longview Aluminum went bankrupt and shut down the plant for good in 2003 without ever producing any aluminum under Lynch’s ownership.

Part of the reason Alcoa wanted to retain ownership of the land was to make sure the cleanup was done, Alcoa’s spokesman said in 2004. However, when Chinook bought Longview Aluminum’s assets in bankruptcy court, Chinook struck a deal to pay 100 percent of the cleanup costs, Oliver said.

Alcoa has stationed an employee on the property and hired independent firm Anchor Environmental of Seattle to oversee the cleanup operations, Oliver said.

“They want to make sure that it’s done properly, because ultimately, they’re responsible for it,” Oliver said. “Because down the road in 10 years, 50 years, it could come back to haunt them. Generally, it does.”

The DOE has required Chinook and Alcoa to investigate the full extent of pollution resulting from Reynolds’ past waste disposal practices, report on the range of treatment or control methods to protect people and the environment from contamination exposure and submit a cleanup work plan.

A formal cleanup agreement, called a “consent decree,” hasn’t been signed yet because the DOE has been sidetracked by cleanup projects elsewhere in the state, the agency’s spokeswoman said last week. However, Chinook is proceeding with the waste removal according to what was discussed with the DOE, said DOE spokeswoman Kim Schmanke.

“This is fairly straightforward as far as what you’d see in an aluminum smelter shutdown,” Schmanke said.

In the first year of cleanup, workers removed 26,000 tons of hazardous materials located above ground, Oliver said. Much of it was spent potliner, a residue left over in pots from the aluminum-making process that can contain three dangerous polyaromatic hydrocarbons, as well as high levels of fluoride and in some cases, high levels of cyanide.

Reynolds not only dealt with its own potliner, it also operated a cryolite recovery plant to extract that valuable mineral from other smelters’ potliner to reuse in the smelting process. For years, Reynolds simply dumped spent potliner in the field on the east side of the plant, according to the DOE. Tougher environmental regulations forced Reynolds to remove its old potliner piles in the early 1990s, but some potliner remained on the site.

To dispose of the tainted potliner, Chinook shelled out big bucks in dumping costs at hazardous waste landfills such as the one in Columbia Ridge, Ore., Oliver said.

According to Oliver, Chinook has spent between $600,000 and $700,000 to analyze the extent and content of the below-ground contamination. The site once contained about 3 million tons of “black mud,” a black carbon liquid produced during the cryolite-recovery process. Considered a dangerous waste, the black mud was pumped into three ponds on the Reynolds property. Reynolds cleaned up 2.5 million tons of the black mud, but 430,000 tons remain in a capped pond, Schmanke said.

Kim Wigfield, a DOE supervisor for the industrial section’s refinery and metals reduction unit, said pollution in the groundwater extends 30 feet deep. Wigfield said the intended strategy to deal with the groundwater is “natural attenuation” — removing the source of contamination and letting the contamination flush out of the groundwater naturally. Until the groundwater recovers, DOE is requiring Chinook to enact a deed restriction so the contaminated water can’t be drawn up for drinking, Wigfield said.

DOE had looked at the feasibility of requiring Chinook to pump and treat the groundwater, but the pollution levels weren’t high enough for the treatment to make the water any cleaner or be cost-effective, Wigfield said.

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See also:

Nov 22, 2008: Reynolds site contamination timeline

Nov 25, 2008: Yesterday’s pollution slows today’s economy